Journalists should stay off payrolls

Is anyone really surprised that MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann gave contributions to three Democratic politicians? It’s hard to summon the kind of deep outrage that drove Olbermann, host of the cable channel’s top-rated “Countdown with Keith Olbermann,” into a brief suspension.

If you watch his show or listen to his frequent bloviating it becomes apparent where his political leanings reside — far to the left.

What the so-called Olbermann scandal has done, though, is reignite a national dialogue about a code of conduct for journalism in a new age of modern digital media and news saturation, and at the same time further underscore the confusion among many information consumers about the increasingly blurred line between news and opinion.

MSNBC President Phil Griffin briefly suspended Olbermann for violating company ethics policies when it became known the anchor made donations to three Democratic candidates seeking federal elected offices without first asking network approval.

The banishment lasted a total of two episodes of the weeknight “Countdown” show.

Olbermann is known for blasting the political right, particularly Republicans, and touting the policies of the political left. In 2007, the London Daily Telegraph listed Olbermann as one of the “most influential U.S. liberals,” stating he uses his television program as a vehicle for “promoting an increasingly strident liberal agenda.”

In short, his program gives Democratic candidates and liberal causes the air time

equivalent of millions of dollars in free publicity. Some would say that benefit greatly overshadows a few thousand dollars in personal contributions.

Here are some considerations: First, he should be held to whatever agreement he had with his bosses. But, did the bosses fail to notice that, while “Countdown” was originally launched as a straight news show, it eventually morphed into an opinion program thought of by many as the “O’Reilly Factor” for the Left?

And, does Olbermann understand he plays recklessly with his own reputation and independence — point of view or not — if he becomes a paying supporter in the political game?

Woe to the audience, as the whole sorry affair raises the bigger issue that news and opinion are often indistinguishable: Bloggers are on the payroll of politicians, candidates advertise on the most popular political blog sites (keeping the sites afloat), ideologues fund new media

websites, citizen journalists break some of the biggest stories of the day, and news seekers have virtually unlimited choices for their news.

In this new age of media it may seem many of the ethical rules of the reporting business are archaic relics for an industry in the midst of transformation. It means consumers must be diligent in researching the interests of those they follow.

Call us old-fashioned, but we think journalists — news or opinion — should keep themselves independent of all influences, be they government, business, party or other affiliations. And, consumers deserve a clear indication from journalists, commentators and hosts as to whether they are offering news or opinion, whether the platform is a mobile app or broadcast or print. When a story does reflect someone’s opinion, a disclosure of philosophy, affiliations and contributions is warranted.